The Language of Material: Design duo Doshi Levien behind the Shaal sofa collection for Arper – Jonathan Levien explains how the design evolved
OnOffice sat down with one half of the design duo from Doshi Levien – designer Jonathan Levien – to talk about his design process, how this differs from that of his partner Nipa Doshi, and their latest project for Arper: the Shaal sofa.
OnOffice: Can you tell us about your design process when starting a new project?
Jonathan Levien: Nipa’s approach, the way she begins a project, will be to draw and to use colour. She works in these lovely notebooks with colour immediately because for her it’s an intrinsic part of the project from the outset – not something you add afterwards. There is a graphic clarity which comes from her orthographic drawings and her sense of proportion is immaculate.
I work in three dimensions. For me my drawings are very schematic – they’re about problem solving. Where I really discover ideas is through my hands. It stems from my training as a cabinetmaker where I developed an affinity with materials – wood essentially – and expanded that sensibility through to others. I have a sensitivity to the language of material and what that can offer a product. For example, I might work with card and through darting, rolling or taping I’m able to make shapes – the material creates its own language.
I’m doing that at the same time as Nipa is making her drawings and then we come together and translate each other’s work. The beauty of being a partnership is that there’s a sort of gap that exists in the middle and I think that’s where the creativity resides.
OO: Can you tell us a little about how your process influenced the idea for Arper’s Shaal sofa?
JL: I think in this case, I would say the very essence of the idea – the fact that it’s floating – happened when we made the wraparound concept [the outer shell of the sofa]. I darted the lower corners of the wraparound and then tucked the material in to create a kind of chamfer and that was really the moment, that was the penny-drop moment when we thought: this is really exciting. Now we’ve got this dynamic form in space.
Nipa would see this happening in the maquettes and models and then she started drawing the piece and working on the proportions, the colours and the details. How to create the textural difference between the components – the idea of the panel being one material and the soft part being another.
OO: What did you find the most challenging in this process?
JL: In a sense every project has a set of challenges. It’s not as if one is more than the other. In terms of this project, I would say that creating the hard surfaces like the wraparound shell – in a sense hard, defined surfaces are quite easy to create in the abstract – but upholstered form, upholstery and textile have a life of their own. That’s the point at which you have to rely on the craftsmanship of the makers at Arper and the people who are prototyping to be able to deliver something close to your vision.
OO: Can you tell us your thoughts on the importance of sustainability?
JL: It has to be something that we embrace long term. We have to approach it from the outset when we’re designing a product every time.
In terms of this project [the Arper Shaal sofa] it presented itself at the beginning, at the brief stage. In this case, we had to design the sofa in a way that everything could come apart and be separated. How all the materials, how all the components meet each other, the interface between the panel and the upholstery is carefully studied to make sure it has a holistic feel. Everything comes apart and can be upcycled and renewed.
OO: Can you tell us about your own workspace?
JL: We’ve just opened a new part of the studio and we now have the whole first floor. We’ve created a gallery environment where we’ve brought back some of our original pieces. I like this idea of continuity, of looking at what we’ve done and evolving our approach and our ideas while having a reminder of where we’ve come from. That’s the space where I can do that, where I can draw and make pieces. It’s an old furniture factory so it has amazing light and high ceilings. It’s an incredible space.
Images by Arper, Salva Lopez, Annica Eklund